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7 November 2019updated 05 Aug 2021 8:52am

The Midway of our movie screens ignores its place among the US’s ocean empire

By Paul Kreitman

It was with some shock that I woke up to discover the full might of the Hollywood war-machine down upon my tiny research topic. Roland Emmerich’s new film Midway, which opens in cinemas on Friday, tells the story of one of the pivotal battles of World War II, fought between the Japanese and American navies on and around a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is not a subtle film. Its themes are courage, patriotism and pyrotechnics, served up with a side-portion of simpering spouse.

This will not come as much of a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the director’s earlier work, such as Independence Day (1996) or The Patriot (2000), or indeed with Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), to which it bears unfortunate similarities. But in fact all these tropes are staples of the usual formula for movies about World War II: to narrate the conflict as the good war, an epic struggle between the forces of liberty and tyranny.

The Battle of Midway has seen its fair share of such stories already, and Emmerich’s take is the third American feature film on the subject. The first was stitched together from actual documentary footage rushed into cinemas mere weeks after the battle itself in order to congratulate US audiences on the successful defence of “your front yard” in the Pacific.

Emmerich explicitly acknowledges this earlier history of propagandising Midway. A key plot strand of the film shows director-turned-documentary maker John Ford arriving on the island in time to witness the battle. But he also essentially recycles it, entirely ignoring the fact that the US was, like Japan and the UK, very much a colonial power during World War II. So, for instance, the film depicts the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor without mentioning that at the time Hawai’i was only a US territory, and would not achieve statehood until 1959. Nor does it mention that the same day Japan also bombed the American colonies of Philippines (decolonised 1946) and Guam (still a colony!).

As Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide an Empire (2019) has so elegantly shown, Americans maintain a remarkable amnesia about their country’s imperial history, manifest most recently in widespread indifference to the hurricane damage wreaked on the US territory of Puerto Rico.

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On the eve of World War 2 America’s colonial territories encompassed roughly thirteen per cent of its population. This population may have lived under the Stars and Stripes, but they had no elected representatives and were hardly any freer than Koreans, Chinese and Southeast Asians living under Japanese rule.

In particular, Midway does little to explain how its titular island became America’s “front yard” in the first place. The atoll of Midway has a strong claim to being “the loneliest place on Earth”. Roughly twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, it essentially consists of a handful of sand scattered over a coral reef growing from a sunken volcano in the middle of the Pacific. This very isolation has made the island an ideal home for albatrosses, terns, shearwaters, and other seabirds seeking to raise their young safe from land-borne predators.

In a very real sense, these birds made Midway. They carried seeds and grasses that sprouted in and secured the atoll’s sandy soil. The run-off from their phosphate-rich droppings fed shoals of plankton, that in turn fed a rich marine ecosystem that helped build the reef further.

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And it was the birds that first drew Midway to the attention of American empire builders. In the mid-nineteenth century, merchants suddenly discovered that dried birdshit, or guano, could command a high market price as agricultural fertiliser. This sparked a global scramble to mine remote oceanic atolls, and in 1859 an American sea captain applied to the U.S. government to annex Midway under newly passed Congressional legislation, the Guano Islands Act, designed to formalise the process for claiming Pacific atolls. The planned guano mine came to nothing, however, and for nearly half a century America’s claim to Midway existed only in an entry in a ledger in a Washington DC filing cabinet.

Then, in 1898, America went to war with Spain and, in a paroxysm of victory, suddenly acquired a whole new empire in the Pacific: the Philippines, a scattering of other Spanish island holdings in the Pacific, and Hawai’i – formerly an independent kingdom. This new empire generated new strategic imperatives. It brought the U.S. face to face with Japan, another imperial power expanding vigorously into the Pacific. And in the Philippines, America inherited from Spain a simmering counter-insurgency war against Filipino nationalists that would a decade (and great savagery) to suppress.

The U.S. took a number of steps to defend its new Pacific Empire. It began to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i. It dug a canal across Panama to give its navy easy access to the Pacific. And it laid a trans-Pacific telegraph cable to connect San Francisco with Manila via Honolulu. Midway made for an excellent cable landing station. A detachment of U.S. marines arrived on the island in 1903, summarily ejected the Japanese bird hunters who had encamped there to harvest feathers for ladies’ hats, and began trying to fortify it. An anonymous poem submitted to a Hawaiian newspaper captures their sense of the futility of this effort:

“Uncle Sam” saw this island,

A ‘floating’ so they say,

And he hitched a cable to it,

So it couldn’t get a away,

Then he looked the place all over,

And he sent a cablegram:

“Send some big Marines to Midway,

There’s toehold in the sand,’

Hanging to a chunk of land,

With a toe-hold in the sand,

Would to God, it would grow bigger,

So we’d have a place to stand.

This early effort to fortify Midway did indeed end in failure, and the marines were evacuated in 1908. But over time the island’s growing strategic importance prompted new efforts. By the 1930s the range of long-haul air travel had increased to the point that it was possible to hop-scotch the Pacific by refuelling at island airfields along the way. In 1935 Pan-Am introduced a commercial seaplane service from San Francisco to Hong Kong that used Midway as a layover stop. And military aviators were equally alive to the potential of the island. By 1940 both Japan and the U.S. could able to field aerial bombers with a maximum range of some four thousand kilometres (roughly the same as a short-tailed albatross) and the same splendid isolation that made Midway a haven for seabirds also made it an ideal site for an airbase.

If Japan had succeeded in capturing the island in 1942, it would have made for an ‘unsinkable battleship’ from which to bomb and eventually invade Hawai’i. And indeed, the US military used precisely the same strategy in its island-hopping campaign across the Pacific, capturing Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa as bases from which to launch the devastating bombing raids that eventually pummelled Japan into submission.

1942, though, marked the high-water mark of Midway’s strategic significance. Victory in World War II gifted the US airforce with an even better unsinkable battleship from which to defend its Pacific interests – namely Japan itself. And the introduction of mid-air refuelling and nuclear submarines made mid-ocean airstrips unnecessary to deliver devastating payloads of munitions.

Lately, Midway has been reinvented not as a guano mine or a strategic lynchpin, but as a haven for wilderness. The island forms the core of the Papahānamokuākea Marine National Monument, a 1.5 million square kilometre marine conservation park established in 2006 by President George W. Bush as part of an attempt to secure his environmental legacy before leaving office.

In both diplomatic and scientific terms, Papahānamokuākea is an innovation. It represents an audacious unilateral expansion of American sovereignty over maritime space, traditionally regarded as part of the global commons. If not a new form of empire exactly, then certainly a new kind of watery dominium. Its conservation goals are similarly ambitious, aiming to protect a sprawling integrated marine ecosystem of bird- and plant-life, marine fauna and coral. Some measures are undeniably effective, for instance measures to counter the systematic over-fishing that has decimated Pacific fisheries and snarled albatrosses on longlines.

But at the same time, drawing a line in the ocean to protect Midway has an air of futility. The island lies square in the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast morass that sucks in plastic waste from around the world. A series of haunting photos captured on Midway by the photographer Chris Jordan show the bellies of dead albatrosses distended with bottle-caps and cigarette lighters, the sort of trans-border pollutants that show little regard for the boundaries of America’s marine national monument. Even more pressingly, Anthropogenic climate change is raising sea levels and killing off coral polyps through ocean acidification.

Of course same President Bush who set up Papahānamokuākea also withdrew the US from the Kyoto Protocol, setting back the fight against climate change by a generation at least. It may not be long before this particular corner of America’s oceanic empire sinks beneath the waves forever.